Vows in the period of slavery and on the threshold of freedom
Fr Jan Pach, OSPPE
Jasna Gora - world known Marian shrine is also a treasury of Poland's history. Last year we celebrated the 350th anniversary of the Jasna Gora defence against the Swedes. This year is the year of anniversaries of great national vows: 350th anniversary of the Royal Vows of Jan Kazimierz, made in the cathedral of Lvov on 1 April 1656 and the 50th anniversary of the Jasna Gora National Vows, written by the interned Cardinal Wyszynski, Primate of Poland, in Komancza and proclaimed at Jasna Gora on 26th August 1956.
Throughout centuries there are other important circumstances when Poles solemnly dedicated themselves to Mary. This year fall the 80th anniversary of the Vows of Polish Women on 3 May 1926, the 70th anniversary of the Academic Vows on 24 May 1936 and the 60th anniversary of the Act of Dedication to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which the Episcopate performed at Jasna Gora on 8 September 1946 and the 40th anniversary of the Act of Dedication to Mary, performed on 3 May 1966.
In the issues 1/2006, 5/2006 and 9/2006 we wrote about the anniversaries of the Jasna Gora Vows that fall this year. Now we are presenting another article of this cycle.
The news that King Jan Kazimierz made the Marian vows and pronounced the Mother of God Queen of Poland spread throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a very rapid way. The same was with the earlier news about the defence of Jasna Gora and further victories over the Swedish army. Those events were a certain whole and were a wonderful occasion to national consolidation. The chance was not used. The obstacles were self-interest, egoism of some people, especially the magnates and gentry who were afraid of losing parts of their estates and political influence.
Jan Kazimierz realised that he owed his return to Poland to the Mother of God who saved the nation through Jasna Gora. That's why in the years 1657-61 he made four pilgrimages to the Jasna Gora Monastery. When he arrived there on 25 February 1657 he himself cleared the fortress of rubble and strengthened its fortifications. Then Fr Kordecki wrote the king a letter, thanking him for his visit. We also read very significant words, which reveal the mystery of this holy place: 'The Most dignified Lady of Heaven decided to stay here once and made Jasna Gora the capital of her kingdom'. In 1658 the king arrived here again in order to see the repairs of the walls and further fortification of the fortress. In 1661 he came twice. All those pilgrimages were sincere prayer and in some way, although partially, fulfilled the vows.
The democracy of the gentry, which was first of all characterised by self-interest, later known as Sarmatism, caused even bigger tumult in the country. In this situation Jan Kazimierz decided to abdicate. The documents testify that he tried to fulfil the vows but he did not find good will in those who made the vows with him. His successor was Michal Korybut Wisniowiecki. Just after his election he arrived at Jasna Gora to beg the Mother of God for salvation for himself and the nation. As a votive the king offered a gold heart, ornamented with diamonds and in it he placed a parchment with an act of total dedication into a holy slavery to the Mother of God. We read in it: 'Holy Mary, I give my throne to You and I will make You my Lady and highest Queen... Support this Kingdom, which is not mine now but Yours...' In our times it was the first act when the head of the country dedicated himself into slavery to the Mother of God and at the same time it was an expression of faithfulness to the Royal Vows. The memory about the Vows was also vivid in the consciousness of the responsible for the fate of the Commonwealth. The Constitution of 1764 said: 'Since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has always been faithful to its Most Sacred Queen Virgin Mary in the Picture of Jasna Gora, which is famous for its miracles, and finds her protection in its needs; with all its Constitutions, namely annorum 1652, 1656, 1658, 1674, which accepted Jasna Gora; we proclaim that we constantly want the Mother of God, her effective help and protection, for us and our whole Kingdom, having the consent of all states of both Nations, [we] renew and approve [the vows]'. The spirit of the Royal Vows was vivid in the nation, awoke its conscience, especially when the national existence was endangered. The four-year Seym and its final Constitution of 3 May (1791) aimed at fulfilling the national vows by means of legislative ways. But the partitions made it impossible.
The time of slavery did not favour the practice of the vows in public. However, the vows were mainly performed in the private form. The awareness of the duty to remain faithful to the vows was vivid mainly among the immigrants. On the 200th anniversary of the Vows, in 1856, the vows were renewed in the Church of the Victorious Mother of God in Paris; the celebration was presided over by Fr Aleksander Jelowiecki. The preacher said the important words: 'Therefore, we should fulfil the vows, not only by the state authorities but also by each of us.'
Another important stage of the awareness that the vows needed to be put into practice because they were the condition of Poles' moral renewal was the Marian Congress, which was held in Lvov in 1904. At the end of the Congress, on 29 September, with about 100,000 people present, the Royal Vows were renewed. Archbishop Jozef Bilczewski added to the royal text the obligation to fight for social justice and national unity, which was so much destroyed by the invaders. We read in the text: 'We will do our best to do justice to all states, especially to the peasants and workers, and that all people had one heart and one soul'. This act was the first historical actualisation of the Royal Vows.
After Poland had regained independence in 1918, Polish people began making pilgrimages to Jasna Gora, the spiritual capital of the restored country. Both the state authorities and the Bishops' Conference came here. The Episcopate headed by Primate Edmund Dalbor returned to the former form of Marian cult, i.e. making vows. Facing the Bolshevik invasion and threat of losing the restored independence the Polish Bishops' Conference, presided by Cardinal Dalbor and Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski, arrived at Jasna Gora. On 27 July 1920, 264 years after the Royal Vows, the bishops dedicated the endangered Homeland to Mary. In front of the Miraculous Picture they uttered the following words: 'We choose You anew as our Queen and Lady and we come under Your powerful protection'. When the Polish troops were fighting with the Bolsheviks near Warsaw, thousands of pilgrims prayed at Jasna Gora for victory day and night. And the victory came! The French general Maxime Weygand, who saw the battle, said that 'in 1920 the world made a great debt of gratitude to Poland, which was the bulwark of Christian civilisation', i.e. it saved Europe from the flow of godless communism. The gratitude of Polish people was directed to the Mother of God since it was her prayer that begged for the miracle. Women, as always, turned out to be the most conscious group. They knew that we should not only ask but above all we should give thanks. In March 1921, during the session of the Bishops' Conference in Krakow, a delegation of women's Catholic organisations, through the Primate of Poland Cardinal Edmund Dalbor, approached the bishops with the request to express gratitude for the Miracle on the Vistula on 15th August, i.e. the nearest Feast of the Assumption. The bishops wrote a pastoral letter informing about the great mercy over Poland, and they ordered to organise solemn processions on the Marian Feast, which would end with Te Deum.
During the pilgrimage to Jasna Gora, on 6 May 1921, the women took a resolution to offer a votive of thanksgiving. On 3 May 1926 they offered the Mother of God a sceptre and an apple - symbols of royal power. They made an inscription engraved on the sceptre: 'Mother, Queen of Poland's Crown! We, Polish women, offer You the sceptre, symbol of power. Rule over us! May the three evangelical virtues: faith, hope and love lead Your nation to glory'. The large number of women in the pilgrimage was a concrete testimony of thanksgiving for the Miracle and at the same time it was the request of the nation that Poland would be worthy of her Mother and Queen, present in the Jasna Gora Picture.
This brief outline of Poles' awareness to keep the Royal Vows and the pricks of conscience that the vows were not fulfilled over such a long period of time show a specific hopelessness of those who are responsible for the nation and the Church. However, the pricks of conscience assumed concrete forms at the end of the analysed period, aiming at fulfilling the vows. It will yield fruit of some initiatives that we are going to present in our next reflection.